No, sorry, not a Sound of Music post if you have dashed here thinking it is, though we did enjoy Sue Perkins little jaunt around the Von Trapp world over Christmas, and as always myths waiting to be dispelled. Maria Von Trapp apparently not as nice as Julie Andrews and perhaps she never was in a convent and may never have made clothes out of curtains....oh well Do Re Mi and all's fair in love and edelweiss etc.
Firstly I am talking book mountains, and with such an Everest of contemporary fiction reading in progress for the Fiction Uncovered promotion, I am treating myself to non-fiction for my own personal reading in amongst it all. I am new to this whole judging process and quickly realised that I would need some method for controlling any sense of panic at the sheer quantity of books arriving, but also would need to give myself permission to read for pleasure in amongst it all.
It is allowed.
Not that the prize reading isn't pleasurable...I have read some crackers so far, but inevitably not everything is as good but still has to be read.
On the surface my two non-fiction reads couldn't be more different, one a memoir presented as a compilation of essays, the other an examination and exploration of an obsession, but I suspect you too will make the connections beyond the snow on the covers.
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt is a prime example of a book that needed to be in my hand after initially reading some of it on my Kindle, and so I have effectively 'bought' this book twice. If there is a downside to a Kindle it is that you pays your money but you don't actually really ever 'own' the book. Think about it too hard and perhaps the word 'con' comes to mind, and wouldn't it be wonderful if, for the endeavour of buying an actual copy of a book you somehow got a deal on the e version??
I knew that to do this book justice I had to have, and more importantly wanted, a proper copy. One that would sit on my shelf where I could see it, write in it, put it back, pick it up again, and see that superbly evocative cover, investing it with ever-increasing meaning as I read.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's in the U.S....motor neurone disease here in the UK) and experiencing the disease's unstoppable tide of paralysis, Tony Judt spends his wakeful nights with a clear mind, reflecting upon past, present and future, writing the stories in his head. The chalet of the title is the one he stayed in as a child in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, impressed upon his memory by those unfettered observations of youth, and becoming, room by room in a constricted adulthood, a visualised repository for the stories.
I think I may have mentioned The Memory Chalet when I first started the Kindle read over a year ago, but gleaning what I wanted, and in any depth from reading on a screen, was proving hopeless. I have started the book again and will write more about it properly...eventually.
The second of my current non-fiction reads is Mountains of the Mind - A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane. In true back-to-front fashion I am reading the first of Robert Macfarlane's trilogy last, and I still have to share my thoughts on The Wild Places here, so this is not happening fast. That feels right, these are not books to rush.
I am not sure how often I may have had cause to agree publicly with Jeremy Paxman, but his cover puff for Mountains of the Mind is 110% true..
'The most exhilarating history of mountaineering... a riveting read.'
In Robert Macfarlane's own words...
'This book tries to explain...how a mountain can come to possess a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachement to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated.'
I have reached the point in Robert's book where the Swiss alps and the glaciers of the Bernese Oberland get a mention, along with notions of fear and risk-taking. Glacier-going is the latest fad in 1860, perching on the brink of a deep crevasse and peering down to its depths the zenith of excitement for the Alpine tourists. But grit, determination and courage is mixed in here too (because climbing will soon be all the rage) and my mind arced across to Tony Judt lying motionless in his bed at night, imagining himself back into that self-same landscape.
If you have been to the Eiger and environs you will know how memorable it is. Breathtakingly beautiful and I only need to look at the rivers of ice on our old walking map (click on it to enlarge) to be able to feel that hot hot August day we walked inside the Blue Ice Grotto in the Upper Grindelwald glacier...and none of us liked the feeling of all that ice over our heads and we all exited fast.
But what mountains of the mind must Tony Judt have climbed through those interminable nights of enforced stillness ...no itch can be scratched, no limb can be moved from the position in which the nurse leaves it, hour upon hour spent suppressing a muscle memory that still persists in asking the brain to react.
'There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. Loss is loss and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing but I could do without them.'
I am moved to silence when I stop to consider that.
But I had embarked on Mountains of the Mind for another reason too.
Bookhound and I, celebrating our Diamond Jubilees this year ( we are pronouncing this Jubberly in celebration of those bags of sweets we used to get as children), are Coronation babies and proud of it, but we weren't the only very important things to happen in 1953. This was the year of Hillary and Tenzing's Everest conquest, and given that Bookhound has a whole shelf of Everest books, and Gibson Square publishers had sent me a book of George Mallory's writing too... well it seemed like a good idea to do a bit of mountaineering whilst safely bivouaced on the sofa.
And as if by serendipitous chance along came another portent weaving both books together in my mind when we happened to catch Michael Portillo's Great Continental Railway Journeys TV programme last week. We watched entranced as he boarded The Glacier Express, travelling through the Bernese Oberland to Grindelwald, Kleine Scheidegg, the Eiger and then up to the top of the Jungfrau.
My reading, looking and thinking world feels completely joined up right now....does this happen to you??